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Asthma Center

What’s the Difference Between a Nebulizer and an Inhaler?

You know that asthma medicine needs to get into your lungs to work, but how does it get there? Inhalers and nebulizers — that’s how. They are two different devices that can deliver quick-relief medicine (also called rescue or fast-acting medicine) or long-term control medicine (also called controller or maintenance medicine) directly into your lungs. Your doctor will tell you which device is best for you.


Nebulizers are electric- or battery-powered machines that turn liquid asthma medicine into a fine mist. This mist comes through a tube that is attached to a mouthpiece or facemask. (A facemask is a kind of plastic cup that covers the mouth and nose.)

Babies and younger children often use nebulizers because they don’t have to do anything — just sit in one place and receive the medicine. Nebulizers take at least 5 or 10 minutes to get the medicine into the lungs and sometimes even longer. They’re sometimes big and noisy and not always easy to carry around.


Inhalers are little devices that can fit in your hand and are small enough to carry in a backpack, purse, or pocket. There are two types of inhalers:

  1. Metered dose inhalers (MDI) are the most commonly used. Like little aerosol cans, these inhalers push out a spray of medicine.
  2. Dry powder inhalers deliver medicine in powder form, but it does not spray out. The person must do more of the work by inhaling the powdered medicine quickly and deeply.

Dry powder inhalers can be a little easier to use than metered dose inhalers. But dry powder inhalers require a person to pull air in quickly and quite forcefully.

Metered dose inhalers can be tricky to use, but with practice, kids often get very good at using them. If you use one, it’s a good idea to also use a spacer. A spacer attaches to the inhaler and makes it easier to use because it puts the medicine into a kind of holding chamber. From that chamber, you can inhale the medicine slowly when you’re ready. When using a spacer, it usually takes only a couple of minutes or even less to get the medicine into the lungs.

Without a spacer, medicine from the inhaler can go to the back of the throat instead of into the airways (breathing tubes) inside a person’s lungs. A spacer helps get the medicine into the lungs, so it can start working on breathing problems.

During an office visit, your doctor might ask you to take a puff from your inhaler. The doctor wants to watch you take your medicine to make sure you’re comfortable doing it.

Whichever device your doctor recommends, learn how to use it correctly so you get the medicine into your lungs. Taking your asthma medicine the right way can both prevent flare-ups from happening and keep a flare-up from getting really bad.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014
Originally reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD